Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s, Silencing The Past: Power and the Production of History is a remarkable work that proves how history is not fixed and that historical facts are not sitting waiting to be found rather, they only exists in relation to the present because we can only know and understand the past from the position we currently occupy. The text is comprised of five chapters: the first documents the framework for the author’s critique of historical power, the second documents the different narratives of the Haitian Revolution and a brief biography of its influential contributors, the third details the history of western colonization and racial inequality depicted through chattel slavery, the fourth highlights the legacy of Christopher Columbus and how it eclipsed the forgotten Native American tradition, and the fifth demonstrates how history is owned by those who choose to control it making it an appropriated commodity.
Trouillot argues that there is a difference between history and History. The former is what happened in the past or for simply terms the raw material while the latter is the academic science interpreted refined by Historians similar to former Secretary General Donald Rumsfeld’s United Nations presentation of “known knowns” and “known unknowns,” showing the difference between what the layman acknowledges versus the expert. Trouillot further presents four crucial moments of historical silence. “Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the moment of retrospective significance (The making of history in the final instance). These moments elucidate how history is an instrument of power for just as the sports announcer only commentates on what happens within the arena of play and not beyond it history is constitute of the story and not outside of it.
Troillot uses historical works of philosophy, economics, memoirs of slavery in the Americas, oral history, records of the Haitian revolution, French Parliamentary Archives, Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the Americas, narrative debates of the Discovery of America versus Holocaust of Natives, and exhibits of the Great American fair, as sources throughout his writing.
Trouillot contributes to the historiography of the Haitian revolution by proving how the same King Henry Cristophe who ruled Haiti from the palace Sans Souci, only ruled the northern part of the island, after it was split into two subsequent the French defeat in 1804. The same name given to the presidential palace Sans Souci also belonged to a man who was killed by Henry Christophe himself. Trouillot remarkably provides a new understanding and therefore historiography of the Haitian Revolution by proving how it was championed by Black Creoles. “The war within the war stretches from about June 1802 to mid-1803 comprising of two major campaigns: 1) the one led by the black officers reintegrated under Leclerc’s command against the former slaves who had refused to surrender to the French (June 1802-October 1802); and associated with Petion against the former slaves who refused to acknowledge the revolutionary hierarchy and the supreme authority of Dessalines (November 1802-April 1803). Crucial to the story is the fact that in both campaigns the leaders are mainly black Creoles and the dissident groups are compsed of- and led by- Bossales (i.e. African-born) ex-slaves, mainly from the Congo. Trouillot continues to contribute to the historiography of the Haitian Revolution by chronicling how, “ A paralyzed Chirstophe shot himself, reportedly with a silver bullet, before a growing crowd of insurgents reached Sans Souci. Whether that bullet was meant to save hi from a Congo as such, we do not know. Christophe indeed defied the future with this silencing. Trouillot together adds new pieces of information in the narrative of the Haitian Revolution enhancing not only its historical detail but its significance simultaneously.
Trouillot furthers his contributions to Modern world history of race, slavery, and colonialism by cross analyzing the experiences of natives and Africans under colonial rule within the Americas. “As we well know, Las casas himself offered a poor and ambiguous compromise that he was to regret later: freedom for the savages (the Indians), slavery for the barbarians (the Africans). Colonization won the day.” He contributes to intellectual history by documenting the beginning of the West in political thought. “The West was created somewhere at the beginning of the sixteenth century in the midst of a global wave of material and symbolic transformations.” He contributes to ethnic studies in the early Americas by presenting stratified nomenclature. “Man could also be westernized man, the complacent colonized. The benefit of doubt did not extend very far: westernized (or more properly, “wseternizable”) humans, natives of Africa or of the Americas, were at the lowest level of this nomenclature. Thus the word “negre” entered French dictionaries and glossaries with negative undertones increasingly precise from its first appearances in the 1670s to the universal dictionaries that augured the Encyclopedia. By the middle of the eighteenth century, “black” was almost universally bad.”
Trouillot’s argument about the role of power in the production of historical narrative resonates with me very much so although prior to reading his book I was unaware of it. As an American minority and a byproduct of colonialism in both the African continent and the USA I now have a more criticial view of how history is an instrument of power and belongs to those who control the present helping them to shape historical narrative in their favor and interests. As my project deals with political history and the presidential influence on legislation in the 1960s I have yet to identify silences within my sources yet do not deny that they exist.